By John H. Foote
As I have stated before, horror and comedy represent the two most deeply personal genres of film that exist. What scares you might not scare me, or your partner, or friends, and so on and so on. My wife loved horror films, the jump factor and let me tell you, my arms was often bruised and battered after watching something terrifying, Sherri got INTO them. I remember after watching Signs (2002) and as the credits rolled I rose to go to bed, extending my hand to guide her to bed. She looked at me and whispered, “How can you go to bed? John, I can’t move. I am positively terrified. Please, sit with me a while”. Her face was white, she was shaking, and I, of course, sat back down and wrapped her in my arms, reminding her it was just a movie.
When we discussed my number one horror film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), she thought it was an exciting, intelligent thriller, but it did not have the same impact on her as it had me, or as Signs had on her. I could always tell if the horror film was working for her, because she was a jumper, she would bounce off the couch closer to me, holding my hand, squeezing it tighter and tighter as the horrors progressed, when she was in motion during the film, it was scaring her. Horror film directors would have loved a cinema full of people like Sherri.
For me, as I have mentioned before, I prefer horror films that are grounded in some reality, films that are plausible, though if created with realism I enjoy a supernatural or fantasy horror film just as much. But realism must be first, without that, you lose me.
Happy Hallowe’en, here are my 10 best horror films.
1. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Before we even encounter Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) we are given an oral biography of him and his crimes by FBI Chief Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to his prize student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who he is about to send to interview Lector, hoping to gain insight into a new serial killer. We learn of his impossibly high intellect, unable to measure by human standards, his manner of getting inside the head of anyone foolish enough to come near him, his powers of persuasion using the weakness of his prey against them, the fact he ate his victims, and feels no remorse. None. We expect, well, I am not sure what we expect, but when we meet him for the first time, seeing him as Clarice sees him, behind plexi-glass, standing erect in the middle of his cell, dressed entirely in white, offering a cordial and polite “Good morning” he is nothing like we expected. The intellect is there, no question, the game playing, the toying with victims, but his give and take with Starling is different, he possesses a respect for her, perhaps sensing her own powerful intellect. The film is masterfully directed by Jonathan Demme, and acted with stunning realism by its principals – Hopkins, especially Foster, Glenn and Ted Levine as the “other” serial killer, dubbed Buffalo Bill. Foster delivers a simply magnificent performance, and Hopkins is sublime, never blinking his eyes seeming to bore directly into the soul of whomever he is speaking with. Watch Foster as she waits in Crawford’s office for him to arrive, turning to see the crime scene photos of the butchered young women, slaughtered by Buffalo Bill. More emotions cross her face than some actresses manage in an entire film. The film swept the Academy Awards winning the big five: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptation, yet people forget it also won a boatload of critics’ awards. Critically acclaimed and a huge box office hit. A best Film Editing Oscar should have happened too, just saying.
2. JAWS (1975)
Stunning. Steven Spielberg’s thrilling horror film based on the Peter Benchley book about a 25-foot Great White shark feasting on the bathers off the East Coast, Spielberg, created a true masterpiece of the genre, and could easily be number one. From that startling attack at the film’s beginning, that violent tug on the young woman from beneath the sea, her realization that she is being torn apart, devoured alive; the young boy attacked on the beach, a geyser of blood exploding around him; Quint (Robert Shaw) being attacked and bitten in half to that final explosion, the film is non-stop thrills, superbly acted, and best of all directed. Forced to improvise when the mechanical sharks built for the film either sunk to the bottom of the sea or did not function, the gifted young filmmaker used the Hitchcock adage that “less is more” and rather than constantly show the shark, we saw the creature’s point of view, the fin, the tanks meant to pull the shark to the surface, catching only glimpses until the end of the film. Oddly, the most terrifying moments in the film are Quint’s monologue in which he reveals why he hates sharks, beautifully acted by Shaw. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are each superb in the film, Dreyfuss providing much comic relief. But from beginning to end the star of this film is clearly Spielberg who never made a wrong choice, and in fact directed with unabashed brilliance. John Williams score became iconic and it is impossible to watch the film without that music. A measly four Academy Award nominations greeted the film, Best Film among them, but nothing for Spielberg, nothing for Shaw as Best Supporting Actor, no cinematography, nor visual effects. It did win three, for Best Film Editing, Sound and Score, deserved all, but 10 nominations were deserved. Sharks exist and Great Whites are known to attack people. Scary enough to keep people out of the ocean and lakes for the summer of 1975.
3. SEVEN (1995)
When John Doe (Kevin Spacey) walks into the police station covered in blood, screaming “DETECTIVE!” both cops know they have their man, but getting inside his head is frightening. Far more intelligent than they are, and knowing it, he has been responsible for a series of crimes based on the seven deadly sins. Using human beings as living tableaux, stone still victims, some dead, some living, all having experienced horrific torture. Gluttony is a man who has been unmercifully force-fed food for months, while Sloth is a man tied down to a bed and injected with drug to keep him idle turning his brain to mush, yet he lives. When he surrenders, he still has two sins to commit – murder too – and though the cops do not know it, they will take part in his monstrous acts because John Doe has made them deeply personal. Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are the dogged cops hunting this monster, the two actors lived in, perfect as the very different detectives on the case. Somerset, close to retirement, is an elegant man, kind, gentle, realistic about what he is doing while Mills is a hot head, anxious for a collar. Spacey, who asked to be not billed, was a revelation in the role, his head shaved, his arrogant, condescending manner instantly turning the audience against him, he could just as easily won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this opposed to The Usual Suspects (1995). Once Spacey shows up, he dominates the film, creating a genuinely terrifying character so confident, so determined to make his points, he becomes the entire film. Far more frightening than any of the acts he commits, John Doe is evil incarnate, brilliant enough to know his second last act will bring about his doom, which he welcomes. That final scene in the blazing sun of daylight (when so much of the film is dark) is terrifying, because if you have been paying attention you will guess what is coming long before it happens. We feel the pain Mills feels, because imagining the last moments of his victim is beyond horrifying. With this film, David Fincher established himself as one of the most exciting new directors in American film.
4. PSYCHO (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the most overrated director in film history, (there, I said it) but with Psycho, he did everything correct (and more) and actually evolved the horror genre. With Psycho, the monster was the nice looking boy next door, the least suspected monster you would ever encounter, but Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was indeed a nightmare of a human being. After stealing $40,000 from her employer, Marion (Janet Leigh) skips town, but with great guilt, to meet with her lover. She decides to spend the night at a small motel off the highway and encounters Norman, who seems to run the place on his own and care for his mother. Unwinding from her hectic day, Marion steps into the shower, and suddenly the curtain is pulled open, apparently by Norman’s mother, and she is slaughtered with a butcher knife and the water rains down on her. One might think they see her stabbed brutally hundreds of times, but the truth is we never see the knife pierce her flesh once. We see the attack, her horrified reaction, the knife descending over and over, Marion fighting back, her blood going down the drain and that horrible fall, leaving her on the floor, her open eye staring into oblivion. A short time later we hear Norman arrive and scream about what his mother has done. Over the course of the film we learn a great deal about our boy Norman, and by the end of this twisting, winding film, turns out he is crazy, as murderous and as psychotic as they come. He sinks Marion and her car in the swamp, as he has done many times before, and we learn that Norman is in fact the killer, having stuffed his mother and taken on her personality. Bonkers … totally whacko. Superbly directed by Hitchcock and edited, as well as perfectly acted, Psycho altered only everything about the genre. Gone were the days that mummies, vampires, werewolves and zombies were the reigning terrifying monsters, replaced by an unassuming boy next door. Horror was never again the same.
5. THE THING (1982)
This remake of the 1951 science fiction classic actually surpassed that film, going further in the direction of horror than science fiction. When scientists discover a massive ship long buried in the Antarctica ice, a mysterious dog runs towards them in fear for its life. One of the Swedish scientists who found the ship is chasing the animal with a gun in an attempt to kill it. The Americans bring the man down and take the dog in, only to discover very quickly the animal is an alien capable of shape shifting into whatever it feels safe doing. The animal or person it overtakes dies, leaving just this replacement to wreak havoc. John Carpenter did a magnificent job building the sense of dread that is built through the entire film, with enough jolts along the way to scare the hell out of the viewer. We can feel that something terrible is going to happen, the silence of the base tells us this, the fact no one can trust each other, the absolute belief that one of the men is not at all who he appears to be, brings about frayed nerves. The operation that goes terribly wrong as the chest of the victim opens into massive jaws to chomp the doctors’ arms off, the head falling off and sprouting legs, spider-like, and on it goes as lone wolf McCready (Kurt Russell) speeds to find the thing, knowing only it is not him, trusting no one. Paranoia dominates the film; horrors abound and at the centre is a superb Russell performance. The visual effects were groundbreaking (at the time) and terrifying, the stuff of nightmares. Released the summer of 1982 opposite E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, First Blood, and Star Trek – The Wrath of Khan, meaning it did not stand a chance. In the years since, however the reputation grew, and it is now considered a bonafide classic.
6. THE EXORCIST (1973)
Within the Creed of the Roman Catholic Church is a passage clearly stated as being The Rite of Exorcism. The very fact the Catholic Church believes in exorcism helped to fuel the box office sensation that was The Exorcist upon its release in December of 1973. If this powerful church, arguably the most influential on the planet, believes in the devil, then it must be grounded in some reality, right? The film was based on a best seller, so interest was built in, early screenings had people vomiting in the theatre, fainting, running to the bathroom or out of the cinema altogether, so there was already REACTION to this film and I believe a huge part was that the Church believed in exorcism. If the Church states, and it is proven that they believe in exorcism, then it must be real, correct? While there are documented accounts of exorcisms being performed around the globe does it mean possession by the devil? It does in this film. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon and after exhausting all medical help, on the suggestion of a doctor she contacts a young priest, Karras (Jason Miller), who after seeing Regan contacts a famous exorcist Merrin (Max Von Sydow) who arrives with solemn force to go to war against what has become a creature, no longer a child. Gone is the cherub we encounter at the beginning of the film, replaced by a grotesque face with sores, puss and cracked skin who can vomit across the room at will, move objects with its mind, read minds, levitate and control the girl’s body reactions. She spouts the most vile vulgarities, attacking the priests where it hurts most, throws her mother across the room and masturbates with a crucifix, pushing her mother’s face into her pelvic region, covering the poor woman in vaginal blood. While seeing the horrors the demons could create what truly frightened me was what was beyond the door to her room? Every time anyone walked to that door and opened it, we never knew what they were going to find on the other side. It was truly terrifying. Superb performances dominated the film, the visual effects were remarkable and the creation of the demon, especially the voice was astonishing. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won two for Best Sound and Screenplay Adaptation.
7. NOSFERATU (1922)
Incredibly this German silent film made almost 100 years ago plays like a modern-day nightmare, still packs a wallop with its portrayal of dread and foreboding of doom. F. W. Murnau adapted the film from the novel “Dracula”, by Bram Stoker, but was sued and had to alter the word cards to omit any reference to that book. What remained is still one of the most chilling depictions of horror ever put on the screen. With infinite patience, Murnau allows his story to unfold, introducing us to Count Orlock, a creepy looking vampire with rat teeth, long ears, and a slow, halting gait. From there the film moves with a stillness that is alarming, as the vampire makes his way to the city, on a ship, sailors dying mysteriously each day until there is no one left. Arriving in the city, a plague of rats is unleashed, metaphorically a pestilence of vampires. Max Schreck was perfect as the vampire, truly a terrifying looking creature, who when he came out of the coffin that housed him through the day like a jack knife, erect, straight up as he snapped out of the coffin. He moves slowly, almost gliding, other worldly, not a part of the human race as we know it. It is certainly the oddest depiction of a vampire committed to the screen, yet the film’s direction makes it work to perfection. That women were attracted to this “thing” was part of the horror! I saw the film a few years ago with a live orchestra before more than 2,000 people, and there was not a sound other than the music, the film 90 plus years old at that point had the group in the palm of its hand. Its grip of silent terror was infectious. It remains so.
8. THE CHANGELING (1980)
A rubber ball provides the most genuinely terrifying moment in this Canadian film made in the first year of the eighties. With a full scale horror boom in effects – Alien (1979), The Amityville Horror (1979), the remake of Nosferatu (1979) and The Shining (1980) yet to come – The Changeling was a welcome addition that did not go for big scares or gore, but rather got under the skin of the viewer, working on their fear of noises, of moving objects, of ghosts. Do you believe in ghosts? I do. In fact I can attest to being in the presence of ghosts one night in an old theatre for stage productions where I was directing a play. George C. Scott gives a haunted performance as a recently widowed man who also lost his beloved daughter in a tragic car accident. Hoping for peace to write his music, he moves into a massive old mansion, far too big for him, but perfect, he believes for his work. Almost at once bizarre noises begin being heard, and Scott does investigate to find out things better left unsaid. As the ghosts reach to him for help, they make themselves known in many frightening ways. His precious daughter had a rubber ball she played with often, which he kept in a private place. One night he returns home and the moment he get6s in the door, the ball comes bouncing the stairs, frightening him. He picks it up, hurries out, drives to a bridge crossing a river, and drops the ball in the water, gone forever. He returns home, walks into his home and hears a bouncing ball coming down the stairs, into his view, where at the bottom of the stairs sits a wet rubber ball. The very ball he had dropped in the river. No big jumps, just a quiet sense of terror flowing out over the audience and remaining for the balance of the film. Turns out a murder was committed in the house; the murder of a crippled child and the ghost of that child is asking Scott for his help to allow the boy to rest in peace. Unsettling, a superb ghost story.
9. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)
They run; they can freakin’ run!! In all previous zombie films, the undead are awkward, lurching creatures who are lucky if they can walk steady, let alone run. Not here, in Zack Snyder’s alarming, fast paced Dawn of the Dead (2004), Anna (Sarah Polley) escapes her home and husband but as she goes her for her car, her husband runs, top speed, and the moment she is safe, it speeds off in another direction, seeking flesh. The movement if the creatures alters the entire zombie genre, ramping up the horror in such a manner we are not quite sure what to think. I kept thinking, “just run dudes”. A remake of the George Romero classic of the same name, Snyder found a way to increase the horror in the film, and found a terrific cast, led by Polley and Ving Rhames, to elevate the story with their fine performances. The narrative is deceptively simple, beginning with a plague that brings the dead back to life (sort of) where they are rabid like for human flesh, tearing into their victims and consuming them alive. Not for long though, as the ripped to pieces prey comes back to life and is soon running the streets to find flesh to eat. Snyder does not spare the gore, entrails, blood and torn skin is aplenty, but never is this a splatter fest, thanks to the performances and the direction of the film. Trapped in a mall, a crowd of zombies trying to get in, but never really succeeding, the group forge a surrogate family among their numbers, and attempt to find a way out before the food runs out. Anna, a nurse, can help with injuries but can do nothing against this plague. A very pregnant young woman has been infected and her child is born a zombie, seeking flesh to eat. None within the mall have a really long-life span, and some of the deaths take place as they escape, eventually doomed as they ride a drifting boat straight to an island inhabited by the undead. Polley is, as always, superb in the lead, her intelligence shining through, her terror becoming ours, and that is what makes this film as terrifying as it is.
10. CONTAGION (2011)
Never has this film been more terrifying, topical or as urgent as it is this year as COVID 19 swept around the world, killing millions, infecting tens of millions more as it spreads. It became frightening to go to the grocery story, to go out, visiting family, to speak to friends, even to take a journey to the doctor or hospital. Masks are worn these days, and they help, but the virus continues to spread, reaching dangerous numbers. The elderly are dangerously at risk, as well as anyone with lung issues (smokers beware), and young children. The longer we stay inside, the lower our immunity becomes each day, as our bodies forget how to fight off the most basic viruses, they defeat every day. Steven Soderbergh’s finest film after winning the Academy Award for Best Director for Traffic (2000), Contagion opened in the fall of 2011, and though received good reviews, was not appreciated for the cautionary masterpiece it truly was and has since become. Returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) has had a dalliance with a former lover and been infected. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital where she dies a terrible, quick death. His stepson, Clark also dies, but for some reason Mitch is naturally immune, left with his daughter to protect. The virus spreads around the globe so fast, members of the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) are soon working overtime to find a cure, find where the disease came from, and setting up hospitals in sports stadiums big enough to hold the numbers. Once contracted, the disease moves quickly to kill the host, and the numbers of the dead is soon in the millions and growing. Told with an alarming authenticity, Contagion feels real, feels like one of those films that could be headline news tomorrow, has been on CNN all year. Even the score feels like a pulse throughout, a burning life within the picture, within the events happening before us. The cast, made up of great character actors, includes Kate Winslet as a doctor, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Jennifer Elhe as the scientist who finds a cure but first, boldly, uses it on herself, and Elliott Gould. Each gives a realistic, fine performance, though Winslet, Cotillard and the aforementioned Damon shine. Frightening because we are now living it, terrifying because of the matter of fact manner everything in the film unfolds, and bone chillingly scary because of the plausibility. Shot like a documentary, as though we were watching the entire thing as it was taking place only adds to the terror. And the burning question, how do you fight that which cannot be seen?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.